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Virtual Preschool Becomes An Option, Experts Hesitate to Endorse

This is a cross post from Digital Education.

Now an option for parents of young children: a "virtual" preschool with digital learning materials, activity guides, learning analytics, and "homeroom teachers," all accessible online through your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Really. This is not satire (as was the case when The Onion lampooned the notion in an eerily prescient story a few months ago.)

"We call it a virtual school, because we deliver the curriculum and the content and everything else through online tools," said Dan Yang, the female founder of VINCI Education, a four-year old company with headquarters in Ottawa, Canada; North Andover, Mass.; and Hong Kong. "To be honest, we haven't had anybody who has said, 'That's a bad idea.'" 

Early-childhood education experts consulted by Education Week offered a different take.

"My first reaction was concern," said Kyle Snow, the research director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a Washington-based nonprofit.  

"There are some red flags for me," said Seeta Pai, the vice president of research at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit.

"Honestly, my first reaction is this preys on anxious parents with money to burn," said Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Here's how the virtual preschool, known as ClassVINCI Home, is supposed to work:

Parents sign up for a subscription service ranging from $80 to $645 annually. All packages include weekly electronic delivery of digital books, songs, and games, as well as an activity guide for parents. Children are expected to use the digital learning games about 30 minutes per week. Parents are expected to do about 30 minutes worth of activities per week with their child, plus read the book together with their child every day. The child's work is tracked through the company's online learning management system. Parents who purchase the more expensive packages receive up to 90 minutes per month of time to interact online with a "trained and specialized" teacher who will discuss the child's progress, answer the parent's questions, and offer advice and customized activities and suggestions.

The company's marketing materials stress skill development and readiness for kindergarten and the Common Core State Standards (From the website: "Let's face it. You are not sure about how well your child will be doing in school. Now you can gain that confidence by preparing early.")

But Yang said the company's actual practice is heavily grounded in Montessori methods, which focus on fostering each individual child's interests and natural inclination to learn, often in the context of practical life skills and hands-on play. In addition to a digital game, she said, suggested activities might include using a bucket of water and scooping tools, to promote fine motor skills, or putting strawberries on different plates to help teach one-to-one numerical correspondence.

"It's not really about making a math genius at two years old, but to show parents what sequential learning can look like," Yang said. "The purpose is to provide parents with guidance on how to interact with their children."

VINCI also operates an international chain of brick-and-mortar early childhood centers, including three franchises in North America and more than 50 in China. Yang said those centers blend Montessori methods, collaborative play areas to promote expression and communication, and digital technologies, including a learning management system to give parents more "visibility" into what their children do each day.

The instructional materials that are the basis of those centers are also the core of the virtual preschool.

Guernsey of the New America Foundation and Pai of Common Sense Media each said they each recognize the need for better materials for parents to help their children learn and develop, but they aren't sure the sample materials offered by VINCI are up to snuff.

​"The quality seemed shoddy," said Pai, based on a review of some sample materials provided by the company.

Guernsey said the opportunity to connect with teachers is "probably the most appealing part" of VINCI's virtual preschool offering, but she questioned what that would actually look like in practice. "There has to be a lot of back-and-forth about what's happening with this individual child in this particular moment," she said. "Without [that], it's tricky."

Yang said that VINCI's current system allows for parents to upload photos and videos for teachers to review, and web conferencing is planned for the near future.

A 20-year veteran of the technology industry, Yang also defended the quality of VINCI's materials, noting that the company has won numerous awards and that its materials have been developed in cooperation with various academic and cognitive-development experts.

For Snow, the NAEYC research director, the type of model that VINCI has developed--particularly the part about providing parents with online access to teachers/experts --could conceivably have "some potential." But he said effectively implementing such a model would require addressing uncertainties at nearly every stage of the chain: 

  • Are the materials high-quality? Who designed them? Are they developmentally appropriate and consistent with research on young children's learning?
  • Are expert guidelines around children's exposure to screens being respected?
  • Are parents truly using the materials to interact more and better with their children?  Or are they using technology as a replacement for face-to-face interaction, as often happens with everything from television to apps?
  • Is the focus on recognizing and supporting each individual child's development, or on getting all children on the same sequence?
  • Are the data generated by the digital learning tools meaningful and accurate?
  • Are the teachers/experts consulting with parents qualified and capable?

Parents and caregivers would be wise to ask such questions of any technology and digital tools they are considering using with their children, said Pai.

"There are a lot of products out there, and there's  a lot of variance in quality," she said. "That's especially true in early childhood, which a lot of developers gravitate towards, because they think it's easy to teach A-B-C and 1-2-3."

Since launching last month, about 20 parents have signed up for VINCI's virtual preschool, according to the company.

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